2 Kings 4:42-44
Ephesians 3: 14-21
We heard about two miracles this morning in our scripture readings.
- In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Elisha enables 100 persons to be fed on 20 barley loaves and some grain ears.
- In the New Testament reading, Jesus enables the feeding of a crowd with five loaves and two fishes share by a boy.
We can understand these miracles as the work of magicians or as Paul seems to understand miracles in his prayer for the Ephesians: as love unleashed within community. Paul prays that the Spirit of Christ will dwell in members of the Ephesian faith community so that God might work through them to achieve unimagined possibilities -- in short, miracles.
If you understand miracles as love unleashed within community, we -- the church -- can help make miracles by:
- Encouraging people to open their hearts to the Spirit of Christ -- which is the capacity to love
- Building communities -- congregations and other organizations -- in which people can exercise their capacity to love
I believe the church is called to do these things -- to help make miracles in a world desperately in need of miracles. Another miracle that occurred in the 1970s -- one we didn't hear about in our scripture lesson this morning -- sheds light on just how the church can respond to this call. It happened in East Brooklyn.
In the impoverished neighborhoods of East Brooklyn a few years ago, block after block looked like a war zone -- the rubble of bulldozed abandoned houses and apartment buildings strewn on them. Drug dealers ruled these streets.
Visit there today and you will see a miracle. Where there used to be the rubble, thousands of lower middle income families are now enjoying a good quality of life in 5000 single-family owner-occupied housing units.
East Brooklyn, like many urban neighborhoods throughout the
country, deteriorated in the 1960s when the nation's economy decentralized. Retailing and
manufacturing moved to the suburbs, taking jobs and people with them. Traditional
foundations of the community crumbled in the process -- unions, political groups, ethnic
associations, small business organizations.
Churches, however, remained and continued to preach the Gospel with its message of acceptance, compassion, and the certainty that good triumphs over evil, life over death. In the midst of the desolation, the churches continued to kindle the Spirit of Christ -- a spirit of love and hope --among the people.
In 1978, East Brooklyn church people -- Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity -- started talking to each other across denominational lines about how to make their community a better place to live. East Brooklyn Churches as they called themselves started largely as people talking to each other one on one, and then in small groups.
As relationships among these church people developed and trust built among them, they started working together to clean up vacant lots, force local food stores to clean-up, and pressure the city to install street signs and renovate local parks. Their confidence and sense of solidarity and potency grew. In the early 1980s, they turned to housing out of the conviction that only widespread home ownership could create the kind of roots essential for renewed community pride and freedom from fear.
They adopted a controversial argument of I.D. Robbins, a former developer and New York Daily News columnist. He argued that for half the cost of high-density, high-rise apartments, you could build large numbers of single family homes that could stabilize neighborhoods. With Robbins' newspaper columns spotlighting their work, East Brooklyn Churches successfully lined up a remarkable group of financial backers, including Brooklyn's Roman Catholic Archdiocese, and the Missouri Synod of the National Lutheran Church. In early 1982, they needed only the green light from the City of New York to move forward.
East Brooklyn Church leaders called a press conference and declared they would go forward even without Mayor Koch's okay. Television coverage of the press conference featured video clips of desolation in East Brooklyn. It generated an immensely favorable audience response. The next day Mayor Koch approved the project. The miracle was in the making. Visit East Brooklyn today and you'll see neighborhoods with problems, but there is stablilty and a sense of pride. And there are the 5000 owner-occupied single family housing units -- the visible sign of the miracle.
The East Brooklyn miracle had those two miracle-making components mentioned earlier:
- First: People with a spirit of love and hope kindled by the continuing presence of the church in the midst of desolation. The church told the story of the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Christ -- a story that demonstrates that God accepts everyone, exemplifies compassion for the suffering of people, and provides assurance that good triumphs over evil and life over death.
When this Spirit of Christ dwells in our hearts, we can love others in the great joy, openness, and freedom we experience. We readily accept others and respond to their suffering when we are accepted and our sense of compassion is awakened. We no longer focus on securing and protecting ourselves when we know good and life are triumphant.
The church people of East Brooklyn possessed this spirit.
- The second component in the East Brooklyn miracle was a community organization that allowed people to relate, build trust among themselves, and work together toward a common goal. People in relationships where love can be expressed are the channels of God's actions. In the Old Testament, we read about God's actions within the context of the Hebrew nation. The New Testament reveals God's actions through the emerging Church of Jesus Christ. Today God continues to act through communities. Through people with the spirit of love in community, God unleashes the power of love and miracles happen.
The same two things present in East Brooklyn that produced 5000 housing units for lower middle income families were at work 2000 years ago along the Sea of Galilee when Jesus set the stage for the loaves and fishes miracle.
Prior to the miracle, Jesus preached to the people about God's acceptance of them, God's command to love neighbor, and the certainty of God's love. He awakened their capacity to love -- to move into unselfish relationships and to experience oneness with other people and things from which they considered themselves separate.
Then he Jesus organized the crowd. He sat them down on the grass -- giving the strangers who made up the crowd the opportunity to relate. Biblical scholars say the people in the crowd following Jesus very likely carried food with them. They would not, however, share it with each other as strangers. Yet having heard Jesus's preaching, the spirit of Christ dwelled in their hearts. In creating an organization that allowed these strangers to connect -- to start to relate, Jesus created the opportunity for the power of his spirit which dwelled in them -- the power of love -- to be unleashed.
On the grass by the Sea of Galilee, sharing among people who were once strangers to each other revealed the power of love. In East Brooklyn where the churches had kept the Spirit of Christ alive in the people, a community organization allowed them to work together toward a common goal -- another revelation of the power of love unleashed.
The miracle in East Brooklyn sets an example for all of us in the church today. For the church's task -- our work at Trinity -- is to create the possibility for miracles to happen by awakening the capacity of people to love and bringing people into relationships in which they can exercise that capacity through sharing and working together towards common goals.
As a church, we're called to invite Christ into our hearts and invite others to do the same. This is the task of our worship life. Where the Word is preached faithfully, the sacraments administered, and people pray and praise God, the spirit enters hearts. The church does a pretty good job with worship these days.
The church is weaker when it comes to building organizations -- congregations and faith-based community groups -- where people can develop relationships in which they exercise their capacities to love -- in which the power of love can be unleashed. Witness the steady decline in membership in the major denominations.
Community organizers tell us that organizations grow up from intentional development of one-on-one relationships between people. These relationships start in conversations in which one person talks to another about concerns and how becoming involved in a special group can address them. They were the building blocks of East Brooklyn Churches.
They're also the building blocks of individual congregations like Trinity. Growing churches intentionally practice community-building by developing one-on-one relationships among people. It's the responsibility of each and every one of us to engage in conversations about Trinity and develop relationships that build our community of faith.
One-on-one relationships develop like this:
You go to a person you know with an agenda: to become involved in Trinity Church. The agenda -- coming to your conversation prepared -- and meeting someone with whom you have established legitimacy are important. You have to know what you want to accomplish. And cold calls rarely work. Street corner preachers are usually ignored.
Then you listen for concerns, things that influence the person, personal experiences, how involved they might want to become in the life of Trinity Church. Having listened, you agitate in a response based on what you have
heard. In becoming involved in Trinity, they can address some of their concerns. They can meet people who have had similar personal experiences. "So visit us Sunday," you say. You work to get a commitment of some kind. The meeting ends, but you need to follow-up -- continue developing the relationship.
Being prepared to meet people. Establishing legitimacy with them. Listening to them. Agitating them a little bit. Getting commitments from them. Follow-up. That's the essence of relationship-building. Out of relationships, organizations and communities grow where God can act -- where miracles can happen in a world that desperately needs them.
The process is simple. Taking the time to do it is the problem. In the world so desperately in need of miracles, however, we need to work at becoming miracle-makers!
Let us pray.
O God, open our hearts to the Spirit of Christ and the capacity to love, and give us the courage to build relationships in which to express love. Amen.
- Elder Bob Arnold
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